I continue to study the Western genre. I have now launched a podcast about the making of Western films. Listen here


John Ford’s early work is a great demonstration of the filmmaker’s strengths and weaknesses. 3 Bad Men has both on display in spades.

It shows Ford’s clumsy and unsuccessful use of humor. Most of the film’s comedic moments, with a couple hilarious exceptions, fell flat for this viewer as they often do in his later work. Ford, unlike Hawks, wasn’t a great comedic filmmaker and the instances of great comedy in his work can be attributed to brilliant performers like Will Rogers.

However this epic silent Western also shows Ford’s masterful talent in his formative years. From the framing of shots to the movement within those shots, 3 Bad Men is indicative of his already incredible visual instincts. Ford is also a master of emotion. As I saw in his submarine thriller Men Without Women, he proves again here that he can pull on the heartstrings perhaps more than any filmmaker of his time. He certainly gets at my Irish sentimentality and it’s rare that I finish one of his films without having tears in my eyes.

As a Western, 3 Bad Men is a notable early entry in the genre. Other than a fascinating look at the director’s progression, it stands out for two reasons: 1. The astounding land rush sequence which must be one of the great action scenes of the genre. 2. The performance of Tom Santschi, one of the “3 bad men” who steals every scene he’s in and evelates the acting to another level. To my knowledge, I have never seen Santschi in another picture but I will be on the look out for his name from now on. His brooding, quiet demeanor and piercing eyes are unforgettable and it’s a shame he did not live on into the sound era.

One last note: John Ford did not make another Western after 3 Bad Men until 1939 with Stagecoach. In the thirteen years between, he mostly made dramas, comedies, and crime pictures. It is fascinating to see how far he progressed from this film to that iconic masterpiece.

Watched on Criterion Channel